Immigration centre to be built despite local anxiety

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Indy Politics

A centre to hold 750 asylum-seekers in rural Oxfordshire costing millions of pounds won government approval yesterday despite planning objections and local opposition.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, signalled the start of construction work on a former Ministry of Defence site in Bicester, Oxfordshire, after concluding that the need for urgent immigration reforms outweighed local concerns. He rejected claims that the housing of asylum-seekers and their families would result in "psychological" damage to neighbours fearful of crime or a repeat of the disorder last February at Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire.

The announcement, which is part of Home Office plans to put asylum-seekers in large, semi-rural centres to speed the application process, overrides objections from Cherwell District Council and a subsequent decision by an independent inspector to reject planning consent.

Dionne Arrowsmith, founder of the Bicester Action Group, referring to the inspector's decision, said: "It wasn't 'maybe or maybe not', it was categorically that there were no valid reasons for the centre to be in that location. There were numerous reasons - the saleability of local property, the isolated rural location, safety measures and traffic - but they have all been completely overruled."

The Government had "trampled all over democracy", she said. Local campaigners against the centre promised to fight on. Earlier this year the Government was forced to abandon plans for similar accommodation centres in Lincolnshire, Glamorgan and Edinburgh because of local opposition.

Announcing the decision, Mr Prescott's department said: "He considers that more weight should be accorded to the Government's policy on accommodation centres and the need to trial such centres in non-urban locations, and that less weight should be accorded to the risks to pedestrians which are not, in the view of the Secretary of State, as serious as the inspector concludes."

A Home Office spokesman said the complex, on the MoD's Defence Storage and Distribution Centre, would have space for 400 single men, 50 single women and 300 family members. The spokesman said he could not reveal the expected cost of the centre because of "commercial confidence", but it is likely to run into tens of millions of pounds. The Yarl's Wood removal centre near Bedford cost about £100m to build.

The Home Office intends to reform immigration procedures by reducing the dispersal of asylum-seekers to flats, hotels and hostels.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has promised to build a network of accommodation centres, mainly in rural areas, to hold up to 3,000 asylum-seekers at any one time.

Some refugee charities are opposed to the accommodation centres, preferring to see asylum-seekers grouped together in smaller, urban, community-based centres according to nationality.